President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) with Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Nairobi, when the Chinese leader visited
On the chilly Tuesday morning of April 15, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade invited a section
of top business leaders to a meeting.
On the face it,the invitation was curious.
The private sector has always courted the government, not the other way round.
On this day, the government said it was seeking ideas on how to enhance Kenya’s trade and economic
interests in the Great Lakes region.
And it got them.
Business executives, who included Bidco chief executive Vimal Shah, UAP Insurance’s Dominic Kiarie and KCB’s Joshua Oigara, highlighted the need for joint regional infrastructure projects, low power costs and standardised business regulation.
The consultation signalled the country’s new approach to foreign policy.
Kenya’s foreign policy —for a long time hidden in the din of politics — is
increasingly evolving, quickly centering more on regional integration, infrastructure and trade.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has emerged Kenya’s top international ambassador, taking the lead in pushing the country’s foreign policy.
He has ventured to countries like Russia, where his predecessor Mwai
Kibaki never set foot, and made several trips to broker peace in neighbouring countries.
In its election manifesto, the Jubilee coalition that brings together the President’s The National Alliance
(TNA) party and Deputy President William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP), in the preamble for
the new approach to foreign policy highlights what it sees as the primary drivers of any relations with
The coalition identifies deeper linkages with the EAC and the country’s northern neighbours — Ethiopia,South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia — as key and proposes
to deepen relations via joint infrastructure projects.
It also places emphasis on ‘trade and a progressive foreign policy’ that it said were crucial in opening
external markets, creating jobs and increasing trade.
Kenya has since formed a partnership with Uganda,Rwanda and South Sudan dubbed ‘the Coalition of
the Willing’ which is geared towards pushing for joint projects in infrastructure and security.
The four countries have agreed to build a standard rail line from Mombasa to Kigali via Kampala, with an intermediary running through to Juba.
They will also build a crude oil pipeline running through Hoima in Uganda to Lamu, with a branch
connecting it to South Sudan’s oil fields. Kenya,Rwanda and Uganda have also agreed to jointly develop an oil refinery in Hoima.
Up north, Nairobi signed a special status agreement (SSA) with Ethiopia giving Kenyan companies the
highest possible access to Africa’s second largest market by population.
Kenya has also signed a trade agreement and immigration agreement with Nigeria, which provides for protection of investment and removes visa requirement for prominent businessmen visiting
And Presidents Museveni, Kiir and Kagame have been frequent guests to Mr Kenyatta since he took office.
Kenya’s influence on the global map appeared to have waned after the disputed 2007 polls, the ensuing violence and the failed bid by the Kibaki administration to defer the International Criminal Court cases.
Today, the country has more influence, playing a central role in brokering peace in the region.
President Kenyatta, who is the chairman of the East African Community (EAC) and the Rapporteur of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), has been working closely with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to mediate in
the South Sudan conflict.
However, the country’s tactical reluctance to intervene militarily in South Sudan has reduced its influence.
Uganda’s decision to send troops to fight on President Salva Kiir’s side emerged more influential than Nairobi.
Experts also point to the ICC cases facing President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto as major
hinderances to their foreign policy ambitions.
During US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent mission to Ethiopia, they argue, President Uhuru as
head of the East African Community and Igad Rapporteur, should have been in Addis Ababa, to meet with him.
But, the experts say, Western officials, conscious of the pending ICC case, would rather avoid warm
interactions with a leader whose fate they are unsure of.
Kenyatta is also grappling with not-so warm ties with Mogadishu’s current government that is opposed to Kenya’s support for a regional administration near its borders.
Beyond the politics, a look at President Kenyatta’s foreign trips, and some of deals signed during these engagements reveals a fast-changing approach to foreign policy.
In the last year, President Kenyatta has accumulated thousands of flying miles in a series of trips that have
taken him to over a dozen countries, majority of them in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The President’s busy travel schedule — he has travelled nearly thirty times since assuming power—and the number of foreign business delegations he has hosted reflect a more aggressive pursuit of
President Kibaki’s look East policy.
The three-day visit by the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on May 9 cemented Nairobi’s standing in the
outside world, coming with it the signing of multi-billion- shilling deals which were witnessed by President Kenyatta’s counterparts Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Salva Kiir (South Sudan) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda).
China has been a brazen hunter of opportunities in the region’s vast infrastructure and natural resources
During the Premier’s visit, China signed a financing agreement for the building of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Mombasa to Nairobi.
China is also expected to finance the rest of the sections to Kigali, Rwanda and a branch from Kampala to Juba.
In addition to the Chinese Premier, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and Ethiopia’s Premier
Hailemariam Desalegn have also been to Nairobi recently.
Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first leader of an Asian nation invited by President Kenyatta.
Heads of global corporations have also been familiar guests of the president.
Last year, Unilever CEO Paul Polman was hosted by Mr Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi.
He said the firm was planning a $200 million investment tin Nairobi where it runs its regional operations.
General Electric CEO Jeff Robert Immelt has also been a guest of State House early this year.
GE is partnering with Kenya to set up a wind power project, which will add 1,000 megawatts to the country’s grid.
Sir John Peace, group chairman of Standard Chartered Bank paid a courtesy call on the President
in February, while IBM senior vice president Rodney Adkins during his visit to Nairobi said the company
would work with the Kenyatta administration to improve ICT services.
Nigerian business moguls Tony Elumelu and Aliko Dangote were part of President Jonathan’s entourage
during his state visit to Kenya last year.
Mr Dangote pledged to invest $400 million dollars in the Kenya’s
Prof Maria Nzomo, the director at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International
Relations, says President Kenyatta, unlike his predecessors, has been more forthright about which countries he lays emphasis on and for what goals.
For example, she said, the government need to respond to the shift in the international environment, such as the Western countries’ attitude towards ICC.
“This has brought a different orientation, such as the hardening of positions towards the West.”
Even though the Kenyatta government maintains that it has not abandoned the West, but is simply diversifying interests, it is openly leaning more towards China and other BRICS countries.
In August last year, President Kenyatta briefly passed through Russia on his way to China for a state visit where he asked Russian business leaders to invest in Kenya’s emerging oil and gas sector.
His April state visit in Turkey saw Nairobi and Ankara sign four trade agreements and MOUs covering
security, mining, education and energy.
The two countries will work closely on security issues,with Turkey pledging to help equip Kenya’s police
with modern tools and techniques.
Turkey, a NATO member with arguably the second largest army in
the world, remains an active player in Somalia’s reconstruction efforts.
The remark by former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, just before the
election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, that voters’ “choices” at the ballot would have “consequences”,forced Kenya and the West into a diplomatic tight-rope when the new administration assumed office April last year.
Some of the President’s trips were spent mending fences with old allies.
Faced with the risk of isolating
Nairobi, one of the most important allies in sub-Saharan Africa, as a “pariah state” over the President’s case at the ICC, British Prime Minister David Cameron picked up the gauntlet for the West.
Mr Cameron invited Mr Kenyatta, who had barely finished a month in office, to attend a conference on
Somalia in London last May.
Many analysts believed then the gesture indicated a no shift in policy in UK’s relations with Kenya.
The President’s visit to Botswana in November last year was also seen as a fence-mending mission after
the country’s foreign minister — just a day before President Ian Khama received credentials from Kenya’s new high commissioner — declared the Kenyan President a persona non-grata if he failed to cooperate with the ICC.
“The whole approach is based on how to deal with the issue of ICC, while sending a message to the
But while China is good with
infrastructure, and Kenya is in order to enter into multiple infrastructure deals with Beijing, the country cannot afford to discard the West because that is the primary destination of our exports,” said
Ben Sihanya, an international law scholar.
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